It’s not often that an independent artist manages to get one over the biggest record label in the world. In fact it’s basically unheard of for an unsigned artist to release one of the biggest and most anticipated albums of the decade on their own label and on their own terms. However, there has never quite been an artist like Frank Ocean.
Emerging with his self-released debut mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra in 2011, Frank Ocean then went on to release his debut album Channel Orange the year after on Def Jam/ Universal. It was a phenomenal success story as it hit number 2 on the Billboard 200 and received near universal critical acclaim. However, the years that followed were not great for Frank Ocean fans. It almost felt as if he had gone into hiding with only the occasional feature across the next few years. Fans were eager and there were so many rumours circling around that by the time 2015 came it felt like every month there was news that the album was ready to drop, only to be let down and confused as to what the hell was going on.
2016 arrived and streaming giant Spotify had was being challenged by Apple music’s establishment in 2015. In its first full year, the tech powerhouse had been pushing for exclusives from the biggest artists. Views by Drake was perhaps the most significant as it (apparently) hit unprecedented streaming levels and showed that exclusive relationships with streaming companies could be very beneficial for huge artists. Another streaming platform Tidal had also been getting in on the exclusives and along with Apple Music, supported video as part of the streaming experience. This was utilized by exclusive releases from Kanye West, who streamed the whole album on Tidal from Madison Square Garden, and Beyoncé, who released her second visual album Lemonade and brought the term into the mainstream with the massive hype that comes with any Beyoncé release.
Apple Music began streaming it’s next exclusive in August 2016 on the website boysdontcry.com, the rumoured album title for Frank Ocean’s next album. The album was set to be released in a few weeks time and the hype and anticipation of four years of waiting were hitting a breaking point. Finally, it came and Apple Music had the exclusive.
On August 19th Frank Ocean released the follow up to Channel Orange, Endless through Def Jam on Apple Music. It’s a 45-minute visual album of Frank building a staircase in a massive warehouse. The tracks weren’t released individually, the only way to experience it is to watch the whole thing. This wasn’t quite what fans were expecting. The music is great but the whole project is rather abstract and isn’t easy to access if you don’t have Apple Music or 45 minutes to sit down and watch it all.
It’s hardly the most visually stimulating piece of work as it is just two Frank Oceans building a staircase to his music for 45 minutes, no obvious plot or narrative and no real change of scene. There are some amazing sounding songs such as Slide On Me and U.N.I.T.Y., as well as a stunning cover of At Your Best (by Isley Brothers and also Aaliyah). However, if I want to listen to these songs I’ve got to open up the 45-minute video and watch it, hardly the most practical listening experience. I was intrigued, but rather disappointed as I’m sure many fans who had been waiting since Channel Orange dropped to hear a sequel that would be just at a similar level of brilliance.
However, Frank Ocean was not finished and the real showpiece was just about to arrive. 24 hours after Endless drops, Frank Ocean releases another album. Pop up stores were announced for his magazine Boys Don’t Cry and a music video for a song not on Endless, Nikes, was released. Blonde was the album everyone was waiting for, doubling the first week sales of Channel Orange and hitting number one across the world. It was also a massive critical success, featuring in the top ten best albums of 2016 lists in 13 different publications and in the top two for 6 of those.
Like Endless it was an exclusive on Apple Music. Unlike Endless it was not released through Def Jam but independently. Balling. At first, it seemed that Endless was purely a means to fulfil his contract with Def Jam. A final album for his Def Jam contract and then using the hype and confusion of Endless to release Blonde on his own label, on his own terms, and receive a much much larger share of the royalties. I couldn’t believe it. It was a political masterstroke.
Two days after the release Universal CEO Lucian Grange banned exclusives for all artists on his label in response. His statement included the sentence “Most people don’t give a crap about the new Frank Ocean album.” There was backlash from other parts of the industry but Blonde was a massive success so why should Frank care. Seeing an artist take on the industry and win was incredibly inspiring and is a highlight in this era of independent artist empowerment. Frank Ocean had returned after four years of relative silence and had released two projects, a difficult to access and consume visual album that gave him his freedom and a digital album that gave him independent commercial and critical success.
I love Endless more than Blonde. Partly because I prefer the tracks mentioned earlier to most of Blonde and also because of its purpose. Frank Ocean demonstrated the power of independence by taking on the most powerful company in the music industry and coming out on top.
Best of all something incredibly good came out of it. Exclusives were banned by Universal! 2016 was the year everyone got really pissed off hopping from one service to another on a short term subscription just to listen to the music from artists they loved. Exclusives were bad because artists would be getting a hefty lump sum from a company in exchange for putting up barriers between them and their fans, showing that money will always be more important than consumer interests.
On the other hand, I don’t have any bad feelings towards the way Apple Music went about exclusives. It demonstrated their commitment to supporting artists directly and making deals that financially benefitted both the artist and Apple Music.
Later on more details emerged about the arrangement between Frank Ocean and his label. The New York Times reported in a rare interview that he had replaced his management, lawyer and publicist. He described a “seven-year chess game” with Def Jam, who signed him in 2009 and basically did nothing until he made his own hype by self-releasing Nostalgia, Ultra. After Channel Orange, he had been working on an arrangement with Def Jam where he effectively bought himself out of his contract, buying back the rights to all his masters and subsequently releasing Endless through them.
We may never know the finer details and whether Def Jam knew Blonde would be coming as well but Frank did say, “I wanted to feel like I had won before the record came out,” implying he felt that he felt in control of the whole situation when the release came around. With the response of Lucian Grange to ban exclusives for Universal’s artists, it seems as though he did win and did something great for music as well.
You don’t often see a David vs Goliath battle that David comes out on top of in the music industry but Endless is the slingshot that fired Frank Ocean to victory. It turned what is in itself a vague, abstract and for many an inaccessible visual album into his key to freedom. It may not be looked back on as his career-defining work but in the context of his struggle with the industry, it really is and paved the way to success for Blonde. There’s not much else to say other than thank you Frank Ocean. Thank you for demonstrating artist empowerment on a colossal scale and thank you for winning.